Department of Health and Human Services

The Future of Youth Justice in Our Community

Act 185 in Milwaukee County

Project Rise

What Is Act 185?

Act 185 refers to 2017 Wisconsin Act 185, a piece of legislation passed unanimously by the Wisconsin State Legislature in March 2018, and published into law on March 31, 2018.

The law sets the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, both youth correctional facilities in Irma, Wisconsin, operated by the Wisconsin State Department of Corrections, on a path to close by January 2021.

Act 185 will provide grants to local government entities, to establish their own, local residential care facilities, as well as to the Wisconsin State Department of Corrections to create smaller, distributed secure facilities. 

This page is the information hub for everything about the DYFS youth secure care center, including building and location plans when they become publicly available, as well as program and aftercare plans for youth housed in the facility.

Ultimately, two secure residential facilities are planned for Milwaukee County for youth involved in the justice system.  

One will be built and operated by the Wisconsin State Department of Corrections, the other will be built and operated by the Milwaukee County DHHS Division of Youth and Family Services.

To see what DYFS has already accomplished in its model for youth justice reform, visit the Project Rise information page.

Our Objective

For seven years, Milwaukee County has worked to redesign its entire approach to youth justice in order to invest in evidence-based, healing-focused and community-centric solutions that put young people on a path to empower their own safe, healthy, meaningful lives.

Over recent years, it was found that youth placed at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in northern Irma, Wisconsin were having experiences that generated negative outcomes post-release.  Since that revelation, the Milwaukee County DHHS Division of Youth & Family Services has worked diligently to reduce the number of youth sent from our community to those facilities down to zero.

2017 Wisconsin Act 185, the legislature that ends the use of those two facilities as a youth prison is a major step in achieving that goal, bringing our youth back home, and exposing them to programming and methods that are proven to help young people succeed once they return home.

Now, one of the biggest responsibilities placed on DYFS is to create a new youth secure care center, for youth under 17 years of age and with a non-"serious" disposition.

Our aims for this center are the same as our core mission for youth justice: Building safer neighborhoods, treating young people as individuals, fostering their development and rewriting their futures.

The task is big, the timeline is tight, but we have the right people on the job, and this is the place where we will keep you up to date about what is happening.

Youth Secure Care Center Fact Sheet


How a New Youth Corrections Leadership Group Is Helping Milwaukee Close Youth Prisons

Vincent Schiraldi, Mark Mertens, Gladys Carrion, and Patrick McCarthy speaking

by: Michael Fitzgerald - The Chronicle of Social Change

After three years on the job, the Milwaukee County official who oversees juvenile justice finds his system at a crossroads. The Wisconsin state legislature passed a bill last March closing two youth prisons after a criminal probe and multiple lawsuits alleged abuse and neglect of youth, alarming lawmakers...

Read the Article


DOC's Juvenile Grant Committee Hears Concerns About Youth Justice System

Overhead view of Lincoln Hills School for Boys, Copper Lake School for Girls

by: Patrick Poblete -

During a fractious meeting that spanned the better part of three-and-a-half hours, several counties that had previously submitted proposals to operate youth lockups expressed concerns about the viability of the projects to the Department of Correction’s Juvenile Grant Committee...

Read the Article


'We Know we Can Do it Better': Milwaukee County Leaders Criticize State's Plan to Replace Lincoln Hills

Lincoln Hills School for Boys, Copper Lake School for Girls

by: Allison Dikanovic - Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Representatives from Milwaukee County raised concerns with the state’s plan to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons during a meeting Monday in Madison...

Read the Article


Facilities to Replace Lincoln Hills Prison Expected to Cost Far More Than Original Estimates

Entrance sign for Lincoln Hills School for Boys, Copper Lake School for Girls

by: Patrick Marley - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

New secure facilities for teen offenders are expected to cost far more than legislators initially anticipated, complicating the state's efforts to close its long-troubled juvenile prison...

Read the Article


Episode 33: Youth Justice in Milwaukee (Part 1) [podcast]

Portraits of DHHS Director Mary Jo Meyers and County Executive Chris Abele

by: Bridge the City Podcast

This is the first episode of a two-part series on the future of youth justice in Milwaukee, and what the closure of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake as youth correctional institutions might mean for Milwaukee in the coming years...

Listen to the Podcast


Wisconsin Youth & Family Services Administrator Mark Mertens [video]

by: Dominic Carter - Verizon FiOS TV, WABC-AM New York

Experts like Mark Mertens, the Wisconsin Youth and Family Services Adminstrators is one of the officials calling for a close to Youth Detention Center nationwide. Mertens attended the Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice Conference and spoke to Political Anchor Dominic Carter. The two-day conference was held at the Columbia University School of Social Work - April 10th, 2019...

See the Video on YouTube


Milwaukee County Unveils Plan for Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake Replacement Facility

Architectural Rendering of Secure Residential Center for Children and Youth

by: Allison Dikanovic - Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Milwaukee County has submitted an official grant proposal to the state for its plan to open a secure center for youths, adhering to the initial timeline laid out in the bill that will close and replace Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons...

Read Full Article


Want More? Click Here to Visit the DHHS News Archives

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Archives contain material back to September 2018


Frequently Asked Questions

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  What is 2017 Wisconsin Act 185?

2017 Wisconsin Act 185 is the State mandate that Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls will be closed by January 1, 2021.

  What is Project Rise?

Project Rise is a community-wide movement in Milwaukee that paves a positive future for youth in the justice system and creates safer neighborhoods for everyone. The youth justice reform initiatives are spearheaded by the Milwaukee County DHHS Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS).

  How are Act 185 and Project Rise related?

Milwaukee County sees Act 185 as an opportunity to bring our youth back home. As part of this plan, Milwaukee County has proposed a new secure care center for youth with less-severe offenses. The youth secure care center is a critical piece of Milwaukee County's larger youth justice reform initiative. The new center will focus on education, treatment and skill building, restorative justice programming and reintegration of youth back into our communities and workforces.

  How is the State’s plan different than the County’s?

The State Department of Corrections is planning to build Type I correctional facilities for youth who are in the Serious Juvenile Offender (SJO) Program. At least one facility will be located in Southeast Wisconsin.  

The County is planning to build a new residential youth secure care center for youth who have committed less-severe offenses that will include programming and workforce training to help integrate our young people back into the community. 

  Why does the County want to build a new facility instead of using an existing facility?

There is no existing facility that meets the criteria for the youth secure care center location, or the existing facilities would cost more to renovate than to build new. The State is providing grant funding to help cover the cost of building a new center.

  How does the youth secure care center fit into the Milwaukee County plan?

This center is part of the youth justice reform plan to offer a residential location with programming and rehabilitation services that will help individuals receive the needed treatment to heal and empower them to play meaningful and positive roles in our community.

  What was the criteria used to evaluate the various site locations?

Locations were evaluated based on environmental safety, land availability, proximity to youths’ families, neighborhood resources and access to public transportation.

  What type of youth will be living in this youth secure care center?

Youth who have committed offenses that qualify under the statute for placement in a youth correctional facility, but not youth committed to the Serious Juvenile Offender (SJO) Program.

  How will a youth secure care center help youth, families, and neighborhoods get more access to resources?

As part of the Project Rise initiative, Milwaukee County continuously looks to partner with community-centered organizations, join local leadership councils and advocate for needed resources related to education, housing, local businesses, and public safety coordination. Keeping these youth and their families connected to community programs and resources close to home means our youth will be less likely to re-enter the system.

Get Involved

For this project to be successful, we have to make sure we are responsive to our community. Tell us what you hope to see, and what you are concerned about. See how you can get information, or contribute, below.


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1220 W. Vliet St.

Suite 301

Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53205

Our Vision

Together, creating healthy communities.

Our Mission

Empowering safe, healthy, meaningful lives.

Our Values

Partnership, Respect, Integrity, 

Diversity, Excellence

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